MSU researchers receive $500,000 grant to make fungus-based building material
The thread-like, branching fungus networks called mycelium play a key role in breaking down dead wood and leaves on the forest floor, sometimes popping up mushrooms that spread the organism with airborne spores. Increasingly, scientists are also finding ways to harness the fungal fibers' unique properties to make packaging materials and even replacements for leather.
Now, backed by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a team of scientists at Montana State University will explore the potential for using fungi to make a recyclable building material that could have several advantages over traditional concrete.
"It's incredibly exciting," said MSU researcher Chelsea Heveran, who is leading the project. "We're trying to take a whole new approach to making building materials."
The approach is similar to the way that human bone and seashells grow, by forming a scaffold of softer, living material that minerals then harden around, according to Heveran, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering. "It's a common design strategy for materials in nature," she said.
Turning that into natural concrete would look something like this: The common, fuzzy, orange-tinged fungus in the genus Neurospora branches its mycelium into sand or a similar aggregate, "like the roots of a plant growing to fill their container," Heveran said. The fungus would then help to generate chemical reactions that harden the scaffold and produce a dense material capable of supporting loads.
There's a lot the researchers need to understand before they can get to that point, Heveran noted, but the project builds on past successes at MSU that produced so-called biocement using bacteria. Two researchers on the new project, Adrienne Phillips and Robin Gerlach, have used the harmless bacterium Sporosarcina pasteurii to produce calcium carbonate, the primary ingredient in natural limestone, as a way to seal hard-to-reach cracks in the cement shell that encases oil and gas wells. According to Gerlach, professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, the biocement has some superior properties to natural limestone, and the researchers think that could be due to the microbes' unique chemical abilities.
Fungi are known to produce the same enzymes as the well-sealing bacteria, and they have the benefit of weaving their mycelium into the aggregate, Heveran said. "Because they form this organic scaffold, we think we may be able to make a concrete-like material more rapidly and also make it more tough," she said. Mycelium can also grow in a drier environment than what is needed by the microbes.
The fungi and biocement-making bacteria may also interact, opening up possibilities for combining them — perhaps with other bacteria and fungi — to create not only blocks of the concrete-like material but also bio-mortar for joining them and even a biological process for disintegrating the materials to reuse them. That contrasts with traditional concrete, which is bonded with energy-intensive cement and is usually demolished and discarded in a landfill at the end of its useful life.
According to project researcher Erika Espinosa-Ortiz, assistant research professor in MSU's Center for Biofilm Engineering, the relatively unexplored frontier of fungi-based building materials offers tantalizing possibilities based on what's known about how diverse and adaptable the organisms are. "Fungi can adapt to a lot of different environmental conditions," she said. "They're very resilient."
Gerlach noted that insights the researchers gain about the interactions of living cells with inorganic minerals could have implications beyond building materials, including in medicine. "If we can understand these interactions, we'll not only be able to engineer biological materials with specific properties, we may also be able to regenerate bone or dissolve kidney stones," he said.
To expand the impact of the grant, Sara Mast, professor in the School of Art in MSU's College of Arts and Architecture, will partner with the researchers to design a graduate-level class that uses the concrete-like material to explore the intersection of art, engineering and microbiology to produce an exhibition at MSU. Nika Stoop, research resources coordinator at MSU's Center for Faculty Excellence, will help the researchers develop MSU course materials related to the project.
Interest in biological building materials has been growing in recent years, Heveran said. In January she published a paper with colleagues at University of Colorado Boulder about using photosynthesizing bacteria — different from the MSU team's well-sealing microbes — to make bricks out of sand. The study, which was featured by The New York Times, showed that the bacteria remained alive in the bricks for up to a month, meaning a single brick could be used to make others.
Heveran has also proposed harnessing organic chemistries to solve some of society's most pressing infrastructure challenges and even make durable, recyclable structures on Mars using the planet's native dirt. That "Big Idea" — as the National Science Foundation calls it — was one of seven entries selected from more than 800 proposals to win the agency's 2026 Idea Machine Competition at an award ceremony in February.
In general, there remains immense possibility for understanding nature's chemistries and applying them to make products that have unique capabilities and are less resource-intensive, according to Heveran. "Even if only some of these ideas work out," she said, "we think they could lead to transformative advances."